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Chief Storytellers: Community Engagement or PR?

Some critics wonder if the new city gig is a legitimate use of government money. Denver thinks so.

Denver Chief Storyteller Rowena Alegría speaks with Mayor Michael Hancock.
(Graham Vyse)
It looked like a conventional public meeting. Early in the evening on the last night of July, a city employee in Denver stood before half a dozen people in a community center at the edge of Cheesman Park, a lush 81-acre green space in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where joggers were making their rounds. The room was small, stuffy and sparsely furnished, with round tables pushed together under white fluorescent lights. Trays of cheeses, cookies, fruits and pita wraps languished in the corner, preoccupying a single, unrelenting fly.

Yet this wasn't a typical community forum, and Rowena Alegría wasn't a typical city employee. "I am the chief storyteller for the city and county of Denver," she told the group, and she had come for one of her regular "storytelling labs." They're a chance for residents to record personal stories about their ever-changing city, using text, audio and video to help local government preserve community history.

"I want to find those folks whose stories haven't been told and make sure they're recognized and honored as important," says Alegría, a former communications director to Mayor Michael Hancock. In March, the mayor appointed her to run his new Office of Storytelling, with a budget of $269,000 a year. Both Atlanta and Detroit also have chief storytellers, and Alegría likens the position to a taxpayer-funded Mile High City version of Humans of New York, the popular blog with portraits and interviews of everyday people in the Big Apple. Still, some critics wondered: Was this a legitimate use of government funds?

The office opened to skepticism in the local press. Denver's alt-weekly Westword called into question how the chief storyteller "just happens to be a former Hancock aide," raising concerns that she was running "a taxpayer-funded office designed to polish PR for Denver." Westword further observed that one video the office produced about the mayor's personal story looked "like it could be a campaign piece for Hancock's run at a third mayoral term."

But Alegría, who was a longtime editor at The Denver Post before joining Hancock's team in 2012, is quick to say her storytelling is "community engagement, not PR." Since March, she and her three office staffers have produced dozens of videos about everyday Denverites, including indigenous artists, the president emeritus of a group of early learning centers, and an 88-year-old woman who has volunteered at the library for nearly three decades. Other videos showcase the history of drag in Denver and the home of the first African-American licensed architect in Colorado.

Part of Denver's impetus for this storytelling is growing community concern about gentrification and displacement. "As we engaged residents around those issues," Hancock says, "one of the things that became clear to us was that the loss of cultural identity -- the loss of our history -- was one of the emotional flashpoints for people. People said, 'Our stories are being lost. Our history is being lost. How do we preserve that?'"

The mayor describes the Office of Storytelling as compiling "a digitized encyclopedia" of those stories. Though he acknowledges that a project like this won't "solve any major economic issue that is challenging Denver today," he chalks criticism of Alegría's work up to cynicism. "This is not about hiding anything," Hancock insists. "In fact, let's reveal it. I don't drive who's being interviewed. In fact, outside of myself, I can't tell you who else has been interviewed."

At the July lab on Capitol Hill, Alegría and her team recorded interviews with six attendees. One woman shared memories of taking prom pictures in the nearby botanical gardens. A man described a "new-age bus driver" in his neighborhood "who thinks that staring into the sun is a spiritually therapeutic thing to do." Another man said he struggled with his sexuality early in life, but described Denver as a warm and inclusive place to be openly gay.

These are the kind of stories Alegría wants to keep telling -- the reflections of real people in her city, whose authentic voices deserve to be elevated. "What city government has so often done is talk to people, not listen," she says. "This is a way of hearing from people who were ignored. It's not what I want to talk about. It's what you want to talk about."

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